The Directorate General of Civil Aviation has laid out strict guidelines for civil unmanned aircraft in an effort to regulate them
By Shobha John
When India Legal did a cover story on drones and the lack of regulation in this crucial sunrise market in India in January 2016, little did we know that the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) would get cracking on this issue soon. After all, drones/UAV/UAS can cause mid-air collisions and more seriously, be used by terrorists. In fact, the home ministry had in a report tabled in parliament on December 1, 2015, said that terror groups may carry out attacks across India using sub-conventional aerial platforms.
Drones, till now, were banned by the DGCA unless used by the defense and government agencies. But in a positive move, the DGCA on April 21, 2016, released draft guidelines for drone operators to obtain a Unique Identification Number (UIN) for civil Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS).
AHEAD OF UN NORMS?
This is a step in the right direction and should be hailed. This is especially so as the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a UN body, will come up with guidelines for civilian drones only in 2018. In the US, according to The Economist, the FAA requires recreational users to register their drones online and so far over 4,00,000 have done so. So India is on the right flight path. These guidelines have been distributed to stakeholders for a period of 21 days before a Civil Aviation Requirement comes up.
The guidelines bring within their ambit a wide range of UAVs—Micro (less than 2 kg), Mini (greater than 2 kg but less than 20 kg), Small (greater than 20 kg but less than 150 kg) and Large (greater than 150 kg). After these drones are registered, they will be issued a UA Operator Permit (UAOP).
While UAS are pilotless aerial vehicles generally used by the defense forces, in recent times their civilian use has proliferated. These include using them during natural calamities, surveys, monitoring of power facilities, ports and pipelines, commercial photography and aerial mapping. US-based Teal Group (a team of analysts on the aerospace and defense industry) estimates that worldwide UAV production will soar from the present $4 billion annually to $93 billion in the next 10 years.
The guidelines say that a UIN for drones will be given only to Indian citizens or a company registered in India and are meant for UAVs flying at or above 200ft in uncontrolled airspace. Many documents have to be provided before this crucial UIN is given. These include valid identity proof of the operator, purpose of operation of the UAV, specification of the drone such as type of propulsion system, flying capabilities, range and height, police verification of the operator and permission for the frequencies used in the drone operations from the Department of Telecommunication. Also, details of the re-mote pilot’s training records, insurance details and security clearance from the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security (BCAS) will need to be taken. These have to be given 90 days before the UAV operations commence.
Once these formalities are completed, an identification plate made of fire-proof material will be inscribed with the UIN and RFID tag and will be affixed to the UAV so as to identify the ownership. The permit that is finally given will be valid for two years and cannot be transferred.
The permit will contain the following details: Name and location of operator, date of issue and period of validity, type of operations authorized, area of operation, type of UA authorized for use, UIN of UA and special limitations of flying over certain areas. Renewal of the permit will again require all security clearances. This is as detailed as obtaining a permit for an actual plane.
SAFE & SECURE
Considering the potential for using these drones by terrorists and criminals for nefarious activities, the DGCA guidelines are quite strict about their upkeep. The DGCA says that a UAV with its UIN cannot be sold or disposed off without its permission. Also, the owner/operator will be responsible for its safe custody. In case of loss of the UAV, he will have to immediately report it to the local administration/police, BCAS and DGCA. Also, any incident/accident during its flying will have to be reported to the DGCA and BCAS within 24 hours.
The training for remote pilots is also stringent and is equivalent to that of aircrew of manned aircraft or a Private Pilot’s License holder and includes simulated flight training. Records of every UA flight will have to be maintained by the remote pilot and he should operate the UAV outside prohibited, restricted and danger areas in airspace.
More crucially, UAVs will be governed by the same rules as those of manned aircraft. That includes a flight plan for operations and description of the intended operation, date of flight, point of departure, destination, cruising speed, cruising level, route to be followed and duration/frequency of flight.
Many restrictions have also been put on UAVs. International operations of UAVs and over water are prohibited. They are also banned over the entire air space over Delhi (30km radius from Rashtrapati Bhavan) and areas within 50 km of international borders. They also cannot be flown over other sensitive locations such as nuclear stations, military facilities and strategic locations. They can be flown only during day with a ground visibility of 5 km, surface winds of not more than 20 knots and when there are no rains or thunderstorms. They also cannot cause radio frequency interference to air traffic operations and air navigation equipment.
The guidelines clearly lay down that UAVs cannot drop substances unless specially cleared and mentioned in the UAOP. They also cannot carry any explosives/dangerous goods, animals/human payload, etc.
It is not surprising that the DGCA has laid down such stringent guidelines for drones when their proliferation has often caused near-accidents. On April 17, a British Air-ways flight was hit by a drone as it approached Heathrow airport from Geneva. In August 2015, an Allegiant Air plane flying into Los Angeles was hit by a small drone under the wing. Shockingly, in 2015 alone, FAA reported nearly 700 incidents of such nature. Unlike bird hits, what makes drones more dangerous is that they are made of metal parts and can easily be sucked into the engine of a flying plane and cause explosions.
NASA is, according to The Economist, working on a project for commercial drone operators which will give them detailed weather information, making it easier to file flight plans and track their craft. Using digital maps, these drones will be able to communicate with each other and inform other aircraft and air-traffic controllers of their position.
Hopefully, these guidelines will regulate a sunrise industry with great potential.
Will the new guidelines for drones help open up the market for its commercial use?
Yes, it definitely will. Regulations will ensure that the industry grows with discipline and that people fly them responsibly. It is a welcome move by the DGCA and we will send our comments to the draft. We would like regulations that promote the technology and ensure security and public safety.
The guidelines state that a drone’s flight path should be filed with the air traffic control (ATC) for clearance. Is this feasible?
It makes sense to file the flight path with the ATC to ensure safety. The draft mentions that permission for operating a drone should be taken at least 90 days before. This should be brought down to a couple of weeks. In industrial applications, one of the main reasons to use a UAV is to reduce the time involved in carrying out a task by conventional methods. If the regulations take away that advantage, then the whole purpose gets defeated. It would be a good idea to have an online portal for permissions and the SIM on the UAV can get registered on the system every time you want to fly using cellular network.
Should the stipulation of 200-ft and above for operating drones be changed?
It could be increased to 400ft as it will not make much of a difference in terms of safety and will help in certain industrial applications.
ICAO will come up with guidelines for civilian drones only in 2018. So is India way ahead of it?
This is the first draft; we will have to wait and see how much time it takes for regulations to be set in place. Countries such as Australia, the UK, Canada and New Zealand all have regulations for drones.
Who will be liable if a drone crashes into something and causes damage to life and property?
If it crashes due to the negligence of the operator, then it should be his liability. However, if it crashes due to the equipment malfunctioning, then it should be the manufacturer’s responsibility. Third-party insurance will play a crucial role here.
Do your drones have anti-collision systems?
Anti-collision systems for commercial UAVs are still to be developed.